Thinking about a Legal Career

The Legal Profession

The following books are worthwhile resources that a student might consider in the process of making their decision to pursue a career in the legal profession.

  • Abel, Richard L., America Lawyers, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Arron, Deborah L., Running From the Law: Why Good Lawyers are Getting Out of the Legal Profession, Ten Speed Press, 1999.
  • Bachman, Walt, Law vs. Life: What Lawyers are Afraid to Say About the Legal Profession, Four Direction Press, 1995.
  • Byers, Mark, et. al. Lawyers in Transition: Planning a Life in Law, Barkley Co, 1988.
  • Glendon, Mary Ann, A Nation Under Lawyers,NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.
  • Heymann, Philip B., and Liebman, Lance, The Social Responsibilities of Lawyers, Foundation Press, 1988.
  • Linowitz, Sol M., The Betrayed Profession: Lawyering at the End of the Twentieth Century, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
  • McCormack, Mark, The Terrible Truth About Lawyers, Beech Tree Books, 1987.
  • Moll, Richard W., The Lure of the Law,Viking Press, 1990.

What can I expect to earn as a new attorney?

The range is truly all over the map on this score. Law schools are ranked individually as well as being categorized under a five tier system. ( For more information on rankings, see Choosing a Law School.) The vast majority of attorneys are the product of non first-tier law schools. This in no way mitigates the quality of the legal education dispensed by the very vast majority, if not all, of the American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools operating in the United States. In point of fact the requirement in most states for a law school to be allowed to operate is that they be ABA accredited. The ABA accreditation, which is subject to periodic review, provides the mechanism for ensuring that law schools possess the resources and ability to produce qualified attorneys.

However, the reputations established by the respective institutions do play a part in the marketability of the newly minted attorney, i.e., the starting salary. Of course many factors also play a role pertaining to starting salaries, including the academic ranking of the individual student internship experiences, networking abilities, and participation in other law school activities, for example, being on the law review (and/or other law related publications) editorial board.

The type of organization a new attorney seeks employment with will also have a bearing on the starting salary he/she can command. Not surprisingly, the compensation package will be more substantial for a new attorney commencing a career with a large law firm instead of with a governmental agency, a small firm or a public interest law organization, regardless of the recent graduate's personal academic standing and/or institution's ranking.

For example a new attorney from a highly-ranked school will invariably start at a lower salary rate as an "assistant district attorney," a highly coveted position for the experience and exposure it offers, as opposed to employment with a large law firm with a deep-pocketed corporate clientele.

Where (urban, suburban, rural) the new attorney chooses to practice will also affect the compensation level and/or earning capacity.

The starting salary range thus covers a wide spectrum. Some of the organizations that rank law schools typically also include the average starting salary of the graduating class for that given year. Anyone interested is encouraged to review such data, especially if the expectation is that it will play a role in the decision-making process.

Thus, very generally speaking and in light of the factors mentioned above, a new attorney can expect a salary range from the mid-30s on the low end, to $140,000 at the very high (and rather scarce) upper end. As in any other field of endeavor, the vast majority of new attorneys can expect starting salaries somewhere in between that rather significant gap.

Can my law degree (J.D.) be utilized in nonlaw related careers?

Many individuals who obtain their Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree may have no interest in practicing law. In fact many choose not to take the bar exam at all. However, this does not imply that their legal education went for naught. To cite just one example, according to one recent survey up to 30 percent of corporate (and senior) executives hold a J.D. degree.

For more on this issue, see Arron, Deborah L., What Can You Do With A Law Degree?, Niche Press

The Practicing Attorney and Law Related Careers

The flamboyant prosecutor or defense attorney regularly portrayed in popular television series and movies more often than not leads an exciting life filled with challenging and socially relevant cases. The legal profession does indeed encompass many challenges and cases which significantly impact a variety of fields including: financial and corporate transactions, medical malpractice, federal and state legislation, international relations, governmental and public policy, and the full array of areas affecting the day to day life of every resident of this country no matter what their station might be.

However, not all attorneys are litigators. Attorneys work as legal researchers, academics, and a broad gamut of other law-related careers. Furthermore, most practicing attorneys are not directly involved in litigation. The practice of law essentially consists of a great number of specialties based on the expertise of the individual attorney, for example, personal injury law, corporate law, criminal law, public interest law, etc.

To learn more about the multiple opportunities and challenges awaiting those intending to enter the legal profession, see some of the readings outlined above.